Women's Rights: Tunisian Women in the Workplace

By Sinha, Sangeeta | Journal of International Women's Studies, March 15, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Women's Rights: Tunisian Women in the Workplace

Sinha, Sangeeta, Journal of International Women's Studies


Tunisia is unique among Arab nations, due to the fact that women have been granted equal rights by the Constitution. Tunisia obtained its independence from France in 1956. During the colonial period, women were marginalized, and they little access to education. Economic activity was largely confined to the household, while wearing of the veil was widespread. Since 1956 Tunisian women have made great strides toward achieving greater rights, but has it been enough. This study describes the current status of women in Tunisia given the changing socio-political scene. Have women's rights progressed or has they been hampered by cultural and religious forces in the region? The study finds that while women's rights have not regressed, women have not made much inroads in the workplace. Further analysis using structural conditions is needed to understand the status of women in Tunisia.

Keywords: Labor force participation, family law, women's rights


On January 14, Friday, 2011, Tunisia's president of 23 years, General Zinc el Abidine Ben Ali was forced to step down from his position as head of state. He was ousted out of office after weeks of anti-government protests and riots.

The National Public Radio news bulletin of January 27, also reported the following:

"Female voices rang out loud and clear during massive protests that brought down the authoritarian rule of Tunisian President Zinc el Abidine Ben All. Women in Tunisia are unique in the Arab world for enjoying near equality with men. And they are anxious to maintain their status. In Tunis, old ladies, young girls and women in black judges robes marched down the streets demanding that the dictator leave. Hardly anyone wears the Muslim headscarf in the capital, and women seem to be everywhere, taking part in everything, alongside men."

This portrays an entirely different image of an Arab nation. An image that is contrary to the general belief that women are invisible, talking in low tones and subservient to men. Here we see women walking the streets, protesting for their citizenship rights. At the same time this is also the nation where the self-immolation of a young fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, sparked the current spate of uprisings against authoritarian governments of Zinc el Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and continues to spread to other nations across the Middle East. Contrast the image of women on the streets of Tunis to that of the fruit seller who self-immolated himself for economic reasons. Both images tell different stories, yet both are true images of a society that has undergone many changes in the last 50 years. Within a framework of social and economic turbulence, this paper attempts to understand the position of women in Tunisia.

Tunisian women have enjoyed a better legal and political position compared to their female counterparts in the region, by virtue of the 1956 reform of the Family Law. The purpose of this case study is to understand and describe the current position of Tunisian women in economy or the workforce given the fact that among the Arab states, this is the nation that has granted most economic and legal rights to women. Patriarchy and gender relations have had a negative effect on women's rights in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, but "globalization seems to be offering new constraints as well as enormous opportunities" (Moghadam 2007:2, Cabezas 2009).

Globalization has been referred to as the increasing interconnectedness of markets, states, communication and ideas. With the transfer of ideas and communication, interest in human rights has also increased--a marked difference from the era when human rights were secondary to states' claim to sovereignty. Human rights is also been seen as "a set of claims and entitlements to human dignity, which has presumably been supplied by the state" (Brysk 2002). Thus women's rights have now become an integral part of the regime of human rights, and are of special importance to women of reduced means--who are subject to both class and gender violations, both within their own communities as well as outside (Brysk 2002).

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